Although I grew up in the southern U.S., I read very little contemporary Southern literature. The main reason for that is that so much of the literature that claims to represent the South has nothing at all to do with my South. It’s all mint juleps and the Junior League and “setting a spell” on the verandah. Steel Magnolias and whatnot. Books about the black experience in the South have more appeal, but as a white woman, I can’t claim that experience as my own either. Clyde Edgerton and Lee Smith are more representative of the world where I grew up, but their type of Southern literature seems rare.
So when I was browsing through this list of 15 Books to Read Before They’re on the Big Screen, Book #3, The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, caught my eye. The Virginia county where I grew up, Franklin County, is often called “The Moonshine Capital of the World,” but I know there are other places that would like to claim that distinction as well. Surely this novel couldn’t be about my own home? Wouldn’t I have heard about it? Well, it turns out that the novel is indeed about Franklin County, Virginia, and the title is taken from a comment Sherwood Anderson made in an article for Liberty magazine. This novel uses Anderson’s visit to the area as a framing device that surrounds the central story of the Bondurant brothers, three brothers who made and sold illegal liquor in the 1920s and 30s, when the industry was at its peak. (The author of the novel is the grandson of Jack, the youngest brother. The book is his attempt to imaginatively fill in the gaps in what is known about his ancestors’ history.)
When the novel begins, it’s obvious that this will not be a gentle story of simple country people. The first image is a gruesome description of a pig slaughter, demonstrating the brutality even of honest work in this area. This leads quickly into a description of two unnamed men in a local hospital over a decade later. One man’s legs were shattered from ankle to hip. The other man’s groin was “mutilated”—the man’s missing part from this injury later shows up in a mason jar of white lightnin’. From there, the book moves back and forth in time, following the Bondurant boys on their escapades in the 20s and 30s and chronicling Anderson’s investigations and observations of a related trial in 1934.
This novel may be set in the hills of southwestern Virginia, but it is very much a gangster story. It has as much in common with the great mobster tales as it does with any typical Southern literature. There are the family connections. The code of silence. The shady law enforcement officials. The strong, stoic women. Early in the book, Jack is taken with the excitement of this life:
The open rush of it worked in Jack’s blood; waiting at the corner in downtown Rocky Mount, men and women out on the morning streets and Jack in his brushed boots, cap at a sly angle, a five-gallon can in each hand, his long arms knotty and taut with the weight. He enjoyed the way people glanced over him without seeing him, how all kinds of people struggled unnaturally to avert their gaze. How young women’s eyes widened for a moment just before they looked to their hands folded on cotton smocks and pleated shirtfronts. Jack could tell they felt his presence like a dark field, an invisible weight moving through them like charged wind. He relished each moment and relived them in his dreams.
As bewitched as Jack may be, Bondurant the author doesn’t let this glamorized image stand. As in so many gangster stories, as Jack gets drawn in, he starts to see the dark side of running liquor. His brothers are the more jaded old hands, each with his own demons. The sections focusing on the emotional journeys of the brothers are the most compelling parts of the book. The trouble is that it took too long to get into their respective stories.
The author’s idea of using Sherwood Anderson’s trip to Franklin County as a framing device seems like a brilliant stroke. Bringing in a famous outsider gives the story some heft and shows that this industry was a big deal in its day, not just the outsized bragging of some country folks. Anderson’s repeated failures at finding out anything also demonstrate just how closed the community is to outsiders, as does the fact that no one recognizes Anderson’s name until very near the end of the book. But as it turns out, Anderson’s story is just one story too many. Whenever the book returns to Anderson, the core of the story, the three brothers, disappears from view. Anderson can’t get close to the brothers, and when we’re with him, neither can we.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some pleasures in the Anderson sections. I was interested in Anderson’s musings on the rivalries between him and up-and-coming literary giants like Hemingway and Faulkner. But these musings seemed like they belonged to a totally different book. I think Bondurant might have been trying to get at something about how times are always changing or how difficult it is to be the person you dream of being. He doesn’t quite get there though, and the Anderson chapters end up being a distraction. If he had dropped the literary musings and confined Anderson’s investigations to the start of each of the novel’s three sections, he might have gotten the benefits of using Anderson as an outside witness without making him a drag on the story.
So how did this work as a novel about my own world? As a Franklin County native, I took a particular pleasure in seeing many places I know mentioned and in recognizing many of the family names. (Although one of the novel’s epigraphs quotes the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement as saying in 1935 that in Franklin County “99 people out of 100 are making, or have some connection with, illicit liquor,” my own family was never connected to moonshining, as far as any of us know today.) There are a couple of geographic gaffes that probably only locals would notice or care about.
I thought Bondurant did an excellent job overall with the diction, every now and then bringing in a phonetic spelling that isn’t exactly common but that gets the accent of the region just right. He also doesn’t overwhelm the reader with regional dialect. There’s just enough for flavor, not enough to annoy. I could quibble over a bit of diction here or there, but those would be quibbles. Mostly, I was impressed.
I wish I could say I loved the book and could recommend it without reservations, but I can’t quite do that. The Anderson subplot is a serious problem, and the book only hits it stride when Anderson disappears for long stretches. I do love what Bondurant was trying to do, and I loved the parts where he succeeded. If rural Southern gangsters have any sort of appeal to you, this may just be worth checking out.